OMAHA (DTN) -- The U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee held a confirmation hearing Tuesday for the prospective deputy agriculture secretary and USDA undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs.
Steve Censky, chief executive officer of the American Soybean Association, is nominated for deputy secretary and Ted McKinney, director of the Indiana agriculture director, is nominated for trade undersecretary.
The hearing, which was livestreamed from Washington, was relatively brief with senators holding the line to just a few questions, but the nominations were a long time coming. Nine months into the Trump administration, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is the only Senate-confirmed official at USDA. Perdue attended the hearing Tuesday.
While the hearing was congenial, the Agriculture Committee did not vote Tuesday to advance the nominations to the floor. A spokesperson told DTN the nominees will submit written answers to some of the questions for the record before the committee can schedule a vote.
Perdue later issued a statement saying USDA needs Censky and McKinney to help deal with "serious challenges in agriculture in the coming months and years."
The secretary said, -"With producers in many states just beginning to assess the damages and losses from back-to-back hurricanes - and with wildfires continuing to rage in large swaths of the country -- we will need Steve Censky's counsel to help navigate the landscape.
"And, as Congress continues work on the 2018 farm bill, his guidance and input will be invaluable. Likewise, as we continue USDA's mission of feeding an ever-growing world population, we will need Ted McKinney to be the unapologetic advocate of American agriculture as we expand U.S. access to international markets."
Censky grew up on a farm near Jackson, Minnesota, and served in USDA positions under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, working on the 1990 farm bill and serving as acting administrator of the Foreign Agricultural Service. Censky has been chief executive officer of the American Soybean Association since 1996.
"I am deeply humbled by this opportunity to have a positive impact on rural America," Censky said.
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Censky said he has three specific areas he would like to work on at USDA. One included diversification of both markets and crops. Diversification means expanding foreign trade, as well as promotion of regional and local markets. It also includes diversifying crops with the help of research, extension services and crop insurance coverage.
Second, Censky said he intends to help farmers adapt to changing weather and climate. "Our agricultural production systems and forests are truly on the front line of changes in weather and climate. I believe USDA has an inherent responsibility to help our farmers, ranchers and forests become more resilient."
Censky later added that research at USDA could help farmers become more resilient to emerging and migrating pests, as well as help crops adapt to drier, warmer or wetter climates.
A third focus is rural broadband, which Censky said has the potential to be "transformative." He pointed to advances in precision agriculture to farm more sustainably, as well as help with job creation in rural America.
UNDERSECRETARY FOR TRADE
McKinney grew up on a farm in Tipton, Indiana, and has been Indiana's director of agriculture since 2014. Before that, he worked in the agricultural division of Elanco Products Co., and also worked at Dow AgroSciences.
McKinney would be the first undersecretary for trade and foreign affairs. The position was created in the 2014 farm bill.
McKinney said one of the areas he will work on is sanitary and phyto-sanitary (SPS) issues. Countries will often cite SPS concerns to keep products out of their country. McKinney deemed this a problem facing agricultural markets. "Too often we play by the rules but many foreign countries do not," McKinney said. He added, "There cannot be a double standard."
McKinney also discussed an aspect of Perdue's USDA reorganization, which moves an international science standards group known as CODEX from the Food Safety and Inspection Service over to McKinney's trade division. McKinney said the CODEX would remain a science-based group in the U.S., when CODEX officials meet internationally.
"I will tell you firmly we have to stay on solid ground with science," McKinney said, adding that CODEX internationally has drifted away from food-safety science. "It's become politicized. Ten years ago or more it was not that way."
Senator Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the ag committee, asked Censky, during the question period, if USDA would support working on a farm bill that doesn't cut crop insurance. Censky said his experience, when talking to farmers, is that crop insurance is the most important part of their risk management program.
Roberts and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., ranking member of the committee, took the opportunity to stress the importance of agriculture in trade agreements, including the North American Free Trade Agreement. Roberts cited the need to focus on renegotiation instead of termination.
"I hasten to add that the words renegotiation, modernization, improve, fix -- are better descriptions, I think, as opposed to terminate," Roberts said.
McKinney said "do no harm" to agriculture should be translated into looking for ways to continue trade growth.
Stabenow stressed that McKinney should become a strong advocate within the Trump administration for agricultural trade.
"Our farmers need consistent access to markets in order to sell their products," Stabenow said. "As the administration reconsiders trade agreements, producers in my state are concerned that agriculture could lose important trading partners ... It is vitally important that any NAFTA reorganization does no harm to Michigan agriculture, and our farmers and ranchers from across the country."
Citing his work at USDA in the early 1990s on trade issues, Censky said, "I know that farmers and ranchers absolutely depend on trade in order to be profitable."
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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